Alabama Football: Pros and Cons to Hiring Lane Kiffin as Offensive Coordinator

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2014

TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 28:  Head coach Lane Kiffin of the USC Trojans during the college football game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium on September 28, 2013 in Tempe, Arizona.  The Sun Devils defeated the Trojans 62-41.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With the departure of offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who recently accepted the same position at Michigan, Alabama will interview Lane Kiffin to become the newest maestro of its offense, according to Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports.

If the marriage comes to pass, Kiffin and Nick Saban would promptly and improbably become the "KimYe" of college football. One, the tortured football genius with a soft spot for a basket case; the other, a basket case who's coasted through life on his family name, jumping from one suitor to the next, to the next, ad infinitum.

Sure, that's a little harsh. But it's what people seem to think.

Sep 21, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Lane Kiffin (right) and athletic director Pat Haden before the game against the Utah State Aggies at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kiffin started 2013 in his fourth year as head coach at USC, but athletic director Pat Haden fired him unceremoniously at Los Angeles International Airport after the team arrived back from a 62-41 loss at Arizona State.

That and the Trojans' improved form under interim coach Ed Orgeron made Kiffin a toxic name in coaching circles, even more so than he maybe already was. There's a reason Tide fans took a collective gulp before the Sugar Bowl, when Kiffin was brought in to consult the offense in practice.

But is the man known as "Kiffykins" really as bad as he's made out to be? Doesn't Saban know what he's doing? Should 'Bama fans be rooting for this match-made-in-Internet-heaven, or should they be fearing it like an Eric Striker pass rush?

Let's take a look.


The Case For Kiffin

EUGENE, OR - NOVEMBER 19: Head coach Lane Kiffin of the USC Trojans speaks with his team in the first half of the game against the Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium on November 19, 2011 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

There's a chance Kiffin might be so overrated that he's underrated, a phenomenon ESPN host and Grantland editor Bill Simmons has made famous over the years.

From 2007 to 2013, when he was between 31 and 37 years old, Kiffin was the head coach of three different football programs—the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Volunteers and USC Trojans—that are among the 20 or so most recognizable in the sport. At each stop, to put it kindly, he failed to meet expectations. This is true.

But there's a reason he got those jobs in the first place, and only some of it has to do with his famous last name and the coaching success of his father, Monte. You don't become the youngest coach in modern NFL history without some achievements to your name, even if Al Davis is the sea monster owner crazy enough to hire you.

You have to have done something.

And "something" Kiffin did during his first stint at USC, when he was an assistant under Pete Carroll for six seasons, including offensive coordinator for the last two. After his initial promotion to receivers coach in 2002, here is how Kiffin's offenses fared:

Lane Kiffin as USC Assistant Coach
Before Promotion (1999-2001)17-1926.4373.6
Receivers Coach (2002-2004)36-338.3448.6
Off. Coordinator (2005-2006)23-339.8485.8
Source: Sports-Reference

Say what you will about the talent Kiffin had, which included college football icons like Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Mike Williams. It's a moot point. For one thing, Kiffin was directly responsible for developing and deploying those weapons, and for another, he'd have just as much talent (and likely more depth) in Tuscaloosa.

Are you saying you wouldn't take those numbers?

Kiffin hasn't been a coordinator since the 2006 season, so it's fair to expect that type of production. USC's offense sputtered before Kiffin's firing in 2013, but he was the coach, not the coordinator. Maybe he's just better suited for the latter.

LOS ANGELES - AUGUST 16:  Runningback Reggie Bush and quarterback Matt Leinart of the USC Trojans pose for a portrait during a USC team practice on the USC campus on August 16, 2005 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo By Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Being a head coach requires a certain skill set, a flexible disposition, a specific and austere type of bearing. Some people have it and some people don't. Saban certainly has it. So might Nussmeier down the line.

Kiffin, it seems, does not.

But he still has a fine mind for football. If allowed to eliminate the spotlight and off-field rigors of head coaching, perhaps Kiffin can get back to the basics and thrive, just as he did at USC (the first time). With Carroll as Batman and Kiffin as Robin, the Trojans broke all sorts of offensive records. Why can't he and Saban do the same?

Then there's the matter of recruiting. For whatever reason, though Kiffin is anathema to media members and student sections, he has a way with high school prospects. Check out the classes he brought in at USC and Tennessee:

Lane Kiffin Recruiting Classes, Last 5 Years
YearTeamOverall RankConf. Rank5-Star Players
Source: 247Sports

Those numbers, while impressive on their own, also come with a few asterisks. Kiffin was introduced as Tennessee's head coach in December 2008, so his first class in Knoxville was a "half class." And he still managed to place it in the top eight nationally.

At USC, the program was hit with hefty scholarship restrictions, which made it almost impossible for Kiffin to land a top-10 class. That lack of depth forced him down to No. 12 last season, but four of the 12 players Kiffin landed were 5-star recruits.

That's 33 percent of the class.

Alabama doesn't need another recruiting ace, as they sit atop the 2014 team rankings, but in the gluttonous field of attracting talent, there's no such thing as "too many cooks in the kitchen." The more quality recruiters the better, and Kiffin, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is one of America's finest.


The Case Against Kiffin

ALAMEDA, CA - SEPTEMBER 30:  Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis speaks during a press conference to announce the firing of head coach Lane Kiffin of the Oakland Raiders at the their training facility on Septemer 30, 2008 in Alameda, California.  (Photo by Jed
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The case against Kiffin is simple: He's Lane Freakin' Kiffin. He's been a tornado this last half-decade, leaving mountains of debris at each of his coaching stops.

In Oakland, Davis read a handwritten letter to the public after firing Kiffin, calling his young former coach a "flat-out liar" and "disgrace to the organization." In Tennessee, angry students rioted upon news of his departure. And finally, there was the 3 a.m. firing at LAX by Haden this past year.

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 24:  Head coach Nick Saban (L) of the Alabama Crimson Tide shakes hands with head coach Lane Kiffin (R) of the Tennessee Volunteers after the Crimson Tide's 12-10 win at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 24, 2009 in Tuscaloosa, Alab
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Why does Alabama need to introduce a force like that into its ranks? Is this an overreaction to losing two straight games at the end of the season? Prior to the Iron Bowl and Sugar Bowl, this team had won 36 of its past 38. There's not quite trouble in paradise.

Hiring Kiffin would be hiring entropy, inviting the great unknown. His dour, smug, expressionless face reminds some of a boyish Saban, sure, but that doesn't mean the two can coexist. If anything, they might step on each other's toes.

Successful as Kiffin was under Carroll at USC, that was before he got addicted to the powerful taste of being in charge. Since then, he's coached an NFL team and two of the biggest college programs in America. He's been ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls. Why does he need to take orders from anyone? How well can Kiffin behave?

Even conceding that this is a "high risk, high reward" proposition, the Crimson Tide shouldn't be doing anything that includes high risk. They are in such a good spot, as a program, that it doesn't make sense to take such a gamble. You don't throw a Hail Mary on 1st-and-goal from the goal line.

That's what this would be.

Kiffin could get this team from amazing to slightly more amazing, but he could also sink it from amazing to not. Other candidates for the job—guys like receivers coach Billy Napier and former assistant Mike Groh—might have slightly lower ceilings than Kiffin, but they also have discernibly higher basements. Neither carries the same type of baggage. 

Neither would bear as much risk.


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